Art Review: All Too Human, Tate Britain ‘A Fantastic, Though Not Comprehensive, Exhibition’

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You take one hundred wonderful artworks from a selection of great artists and it’s surely impossible to have anything than a fantastic show. And that is exactly what has been achieved in All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, which fulfils all the hopes and expectations I had of it. However, that’s not to say that the final selection of works doesn’t feel a bit lopsided with some notable absentees.

The aim of the exhibition was to showcase works by some of the most celebrated modern British artists to tell an expanded story of figurative painting in the twentieth and twenty-first century. That’s a pretty big objective, and one that might have necessitated an even bigger catchment of artists. Yet those included, with Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon at its heart, give this exhibition such diversity in method and emotion, on focus and insight, as well as in representation.

When it comes to modern British artists and figurative painting, Lucian Freud’s name and reputation rightly looms large. As does his canvases and their beautifully sensual figures. Sensuality isn’t often a term used to describe Lucian’s wonderous paintings, yet I can’t help think that’s because we, too often, associate sensuality with being slim. Yet standing in front of the wondrous Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996, you can’t help but feel as if her pale skin is almost within reach. And that you know what the touch of her skin would feel like – soft, perhaps a little cold, the ripples of flesh underneath your fingertips… Sensual.

Then compare this to the more skinny, sinewy figure of David Dawson in David and Eli, 2003-4, that hangs alongside. Here, it is the muscles that are the focus, emphasised by David’s legs in the foreground, and their similarity with the lean legs of his dog that lies alongside.

But, of course, there are many ways to capture ‘life’ other than the exploration and realistic representation of the human form.

In the works from (my personal faves) Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, emotional trauma is heavy in its influence. In Bacon’s triptychs and portraits of lovers, sickly white figures are perversely distorted. Incomplete bodies with shadows of bruising on faces and arms. And the visions are blurred, as if these people have been caught in motion. Or as if they are but fleeting presences in our lives – leaving as quickly as they enter. But though Bacon’s vision was unique, there’s fascinating art history references too, such as the umbrellas from Degas’s Beach Scene, 1869-70, making an appearance in his final homage to George Dyer, the great love of his life.

Yet compare Bacon’s blues and greens to the fiery reds and brilliant yellows of Frank Auerbach’s fiercely energetic, even ferocious, portraits. Faces emerging from a sea bed of oil paint so thick you could wade in. But these are faces seemingly in anguish, totally immersed in the dark thoughts in their head rather than looking out into the world. Then Auerbach spins again and we’re into his urban cityscapes – vibrant, energetic places where lights and roads are a blur. (Though quite what these are doing in a show on figurative art is questionable.)

There’s a lot of energy in these paintings, and the exhibition contrasts these nicely with more sedate, elegant and intimate scenes – Walter Sickert’s erotic nude of a sex worker in the dim light of her room, Cecily Brown’s uplifting brightness of two unidentified teenagers frolicking naked amongst the trees, the shimmering sunlight accentuating the bright greens of the grass and the light blossom on the branches.

But there’s food for thought here too.

I will never not be in awe of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits of people who do not exist. Their faces are so alive, their posture so effortless…. Each time you see one you can’t believe these aren’t based on real sitters or photographs. Such an interesting addition to as show that looks to painters who capture life. Art is always blurring the lines, yet here Lynette is pushing us further, to consider what life itself means in figurative painting.

Lynette’s work hangs in a strong final gallery filled solely by works from women artists. The room though is dominated by the bold Reverse, 2002-3, from Jenny Saville; a huge self-portrait, a close-up examination of her face that is so forensic, and its colours so painfully red, that discomfort and awe abound in equal measures.

Paula Rego’s scenes are always rich in insight, nuance and detail; I particularly loved The Family, 1988, where the women of the house cluck around the patriarch, busily buffeting him as they dress him, as if he were little more than a doll.

I always get more from a show that brings new works to my attention to, and, for me, that comes here in the shape of F.N. Souza whose Negro in Mourning, 1957, was painted at the time of race riots in London and which he considers to be one of his best works, explaining: ‘[This painting] is close to the bone of man because it’s about the colour of skin.’

So, what’s wrong with the show?

Well, there’s the odd inclusion of a random Giacometti statue, one of his Women in Venice. I’ve no idea what this piece and this artist is doing here, especially as all it does is beg the question, what about other sculptural artists? What about their work? Antony Gormley, for example. Plus, he’s actually British.

Then there’s the notable absentees. Yes, the Tate has just had a whopping Hockney retrospective but how can you have a survey of figurative painting from British artists and not include him? And then this got me thinking to the recent similar theme investigated in the RA’s show From Life – perhaps they could have shared their works from Chantal Joffe, Yinka Shonibare and Gillian Wearing?

So, look, this show is wonderful – I loved it. Some great artworks from some great artists. It’s just that it would be dangerous to see this show as a comprehensive interrogation of its theme; British art and British artists have explored this theme in far greater breadth and more imaginative ways than what is captured here.

Tate Britain, London, to August 27, 2018
Admission £17, without donation (concessions available)

Image credits:
1: Lucian Freud, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996
The Rest: All installation images taken by me.

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